Portland's Waterfront Blues Festival a long time comin'
Used to be you could get into Waterfront Blues Festival with a small donation to the Oregon Food Bank for long days of grooving to classic and contemporary blues music. Then came former Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant in 2013.
"We knew if we just let people come in by throwing in a couple of cans of tuna fish, we would be overrun and out of control,'' the four-day festival's artistic director Peter Dammann told the Portland Tribune. So they moved to selling tickets. "Part of it was for crowd control reasons."
Dammann's the guy who spends all year talking to agents trying to snag touring bands for the Fourth of July weekend in Portland. "This time of year, my life isn't sex, drugs and rock and roll — it's spreadsheets and airport shuttles," he said of the logistics of bringing hundreds of musicians to Portland.
The Blues Festival is back at Waterfront Park this year in its grassy bowl (without social distancing; masks and COVID-19 vaccinations are optional) and the lineup is strong. Taj Mahal, the Wood Brothers, Galactic and Lettuce top a male-heavy bill, which also has a regional flavor. Acts such as Norman Sylvester and Curtis Salgado will be there, like old friends.
Boats can still drop anchor nearby for easy listening and there are private cruise performances. Tickets range from the basic $40 for a day to $3,340 for a four-day VIP enclave for four. The Tribune talked to a couple of prominent artists coming to WBF.
Cedric Burnside just won the Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album with his latest album "I Be Trying."
"I would say (the Grammys) try to see what music sounds the oldest, closest to the roots," he said of the "traditional" tag. "More the raw sound, the stripped-down sound, like Mississippi Fred McDowell and John Lee Hooker. That's traditional blues in my opinion."
The album was recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis, the home studio of Al Green and Hi Records in the 1960s and 1970s, which has that beat up living room look that screams analog equipment. On stage, Burnside says he will play almost exactly as he played in the studio.
"I've got two pedals, and one of them is the booster pedal and one of them is the tuner," he said with a chuckle. "It will only be two people, guitar and drums. My drummer is named Artemas LeSeur from Holly Springs, Mississippi."
"I watched him as a little kid playing drums. Artemas is eight years my senior. I feel like I got my teacher on the road with me."
Cedric Burnside is the grandson of bluesman R.L. Burnside, whom he grew up listening to. They share a hyper-local, North Mississippi sound, closer to Memphis Tennessee than the delta at the south end of the state.
"But it's still a tad different than the music that comes out of North Mississippi."
One of the reasons the blues remains popular is it seems like authentic Americana. It's still being made and played the way it was 100 years ago and is still performed at a high level by amateurs and people with little interest in the music business.
"Still today there's people in Holly Springs and New Albany that are really great musicians, but they don't really try to make a living out of it. It's just something they liked to do growing up, it might be a part of the family."
Burnside played behind fellow Mississippians Paul "Wine" Jones, Junior Kimbrough, Robert Cage and T-Model Ford (James Lewis Carter Ford) and said although they were all "traditional" they all had distinct sounds.
"Paul would do his weird, crazy, turn arounds, and they would be different from any anybody I ever heard played guitar. Vice versa Mr. Robert Cage, nobody else has is his style."
In Ripley, Mississippi, Burnside said he is opening The Jook Joint in the next three or four months. Housed in a 150-year-old building, it will be a basic bar where people can hear live music, covers and originals. The Jook Joint will compete with other country bars such as Ripley Sports Grill. He said there's plenty of music to go around.
Burnside loves playing Portland's Blues Festival and has friends here. He always sees Amanda Gresham and plays on a boat for her United By Music North America organization. "They did a lot for me coming up, they put a lot of bread and meat on the table when I needed shows, and they're really great friends." In his laid-back jeans and T-shirt style, Burnside likes to blend in and walk the festival grounds checking out the stages during his two-day engagement.
He says if he only had a week to write a song for the festival, it would be something about friendship and music.
"I try to stay as far away from politics as possibly I can. Life will throw you everything you need; you'll always have something to write about if you just live life."
Local artist Norman Sylvester played the first Waterfront Blues Festival in 1987, which was then called the Rose City Blues Festival, which had John Lee Hooker headlining. Several of that band have since passed, but the The Norman Sylvester Band marches on.
The Bonita, Louisiana-native moved to Portland in 1957, so the city's changes are writ deep in his mind and music. Sylvester talked his way onstage to play with Buddy Guy and the rest is history, including a nod as an Oregon Music Hall of Fame best R&B band in 2011. Sylvester was a Teamster in the trucking industry all his life, staying near to his family and playing regionally rather than nationwide.
Sylvester also opened for B.B. King on the opening night of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. "The promoter gave us 18 tickets, I took my family, and we partied till the wee hours with B.B. and the band, and I went into work the next day in coveralls. That's the real blues," he said with a laugh
For this show, Sylvester has put together a review, "They're 12 all-stars who haven't played the festival for a while. They'll be doing cover songs, I'll be doing original material, with my daughter, Lenanne. Her voice is like an angel. She got her master's in performing arts at the University of Southern California."
Sylvester said most blues musicians are searching for the killer tone.
"The old guys play straight through the overdriven amp, but when I opened for Peter Frampton his electric guitar tech rolled out their pedal board on a hand truck! It's gotten a little bit overdriven, less sweet tone." He said he asked Albert Collins how to set up his Fender Twin amp to get his tone. "He said 'Put all the knobs on 10 and take some super glue and glue them. Turn it up all the way'!"
Sylvester said he could never play the blues like the older generation.
"They were seeking independence as men, trying to get away from sharecropping, picking cotton and plowing with a mule."
He said his generation is seeking their tone.
"While they were seeking independence, when I play along with the songs on YouTube, I listen to some of their stuff, man it is uncommon. You cannot copy it."
Waterfront Blues Festival
Where: Tom McCall Waterfront Park
When: July 1-4
Cost: $40 for one day, $125 for four days; under 12 free
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